At some point, everybody wants to leave Lebanon. The capital gets suffocating, so we all leave for our grandparents’ homes in the mountains where the air smells a lot better and the sea looks a bit cleaner. Our ears are gnawed off by taxi drivers complaining about the dawle and arguing which political party is actually getting something done (none of them). If the air pollution isn’t killing us, then the trash in our waters must be poisoning us. Everybody’s trying to figure out just how far they can drive away from Beirut before they reach Syria. It’s easy to make light about our shared struggles – so much so it actually unifies us – but it’s harder to forget how bad it really is, so we exist in perpetual conflict: who are we? where do we go? what do we do?
I’ve found that leaving home has evoked a distinct form of nostalgia that dismisses all my aimless walking through Beirut, where garbage bags flanked my street, and car horns coming from four different Range Rovers serenaded me. This nostalgia distorts my memories: familiarity suddenly becomes exciting and dread is absolved by yearning. This yearning interrupts my thinking with sounds and smells that I didn’t think were important enough to be retained; a blurred scene of my father walking through Byblos’ ports, the aggravation I felt as a child when my Uncle would bite my cheek, One Direction’s Midnight Memories playing in the back of my first car ride without an adult. This nostalgia makes it very easy to forget that I promised myself to never come back.
When asked by adults if I’d consider coming back permanently now that I’ve left, I respond with a hopeful maybe, but my friends and I know the choice isn’t ours to make. The decision was made by the lethargic and desensitized generations that came before us, who were subjected to conquest and corruption. The product is the privilege required to happily and safely stay in Lebanon, which is only possible under the protection of wealth and social stature. The alternative to such protection will always be sacrifice in varying forms and severity.
Admittedly, I could have continued living in Beirut, but at the expense of a profitable return on the investment that my parents had made when they took loans out and received financial aid in order to pay for my elite education. Staying gave me no guarantee that I would be equipped with the skills I’d need to build the sustainable future they’d hoped for, with reliable healthcare and an income that would allow me to support myself. However, regret turned into loneliness when I missed my brother getting his first college acceptance, when I didn’t know that my mother was preparing for her bar exam, and when I hadn’t heard until three weeks later that a close friend had lost her grandmother. Life didn’t stop and wait for me to catch up the way I had imagined it to.
If you get the chance or have the means, then the cost of leaving Lebanon is your family. I left knowing that I wouldn’t be there for whatever happened back home. Such a cost, however, is negligent considering the 35% of unemployed youth in Lebanon, who have to work long hours for little to no compensation in a job that their degree or experience surpasses. The cost isn’t even charged when pinned against the children on our fields and the migrant domestic workers in our homes who must commodify themselves for survival. Hence, the decision to stay is then comprised of those who can and those who must.
My summers in Beirut, however, enable the fantasy that I could ever live here self-sufficiently. Just like a movie trailer, summers here make you think that you want more because of the few good clips synced up to a great soundtrack, but in reality, it glosses over all the bad and mundane parts of the film. It’s easy to see what tourists see when they roam our lively cities where the lights stay on – courtesy of minimal labor laws and generators– or when they visit our ‘quaint’ towns and get fed by the locals the best mezzee? mezzeh? Am I saying it correctly? that they’ve ever had. Though I recognized the beauty in its perplexity, I could never enjoy it whilst living here because I was always to conscious of its flaws.
Nonetheless, being back in Lebanon feels like time stops. You walk in on your grandma hooking up a frail string to her wood splinter basket that’s tearing up on the handle; it hovers above the street until the cashier inside the supermarket knows that she needs her weekly shop. You’ve got salt on your shoulders and seaweed in your hair when you walk through Tyre’s ports- a place you and your friends decided to drive two hours for because it had the cleanest public beach you could find. You stop for a second, forgetting that you pulled up HUJI for this moment, and look at the wall stone clad hotels and homes that barricade the sea, the fishermen sitting and playing cards or backgammon, and you have to remind yourself that you’re from here. No matter how far you go, you’ll never stop thinking or talking about it. Your ancestors are buried here, you met your soul mates here – how can you leave again without hurting everyone that made you?
I pinch myself and remember that I have to. There is no peace in living somewhere where your happiness is dependent on the suffering of your neighbor. No matter how many times I ask someone if they think there’s any hope, we always agree that nobody knows where to start. Secularism? Dismantling parliament? Total obliteration? We end up coming back full circle when we conclude that everything is too little, too late. Instead, we wait to see how much longer it can hold up. While we count down the days for our home to implode, we remember how the sea looked on that day in the North, when we jumped off ledges so high that our bodies stung; our heads hurt so much that the combination of dizziness and heat made us feel like there was nowhere else we’re meant to be and nothing else for us to worry about.